I just read about 1500 pages of contemporary literature in about 6 weeks. Beyond the sheer number of pages, I boast about this feat because it signifies that my brain is open to ideas, without barriers. I can feel it as I read, little globular brain cells soaking in the words, growing plump with new connections. I also enjoy the long almost meditative periods when my subconscious allow stories to pull me along in their spell. But a huge motivation is my own latent desire to write. As I read, I simultaneously enjoy the story and also pause along the way to dissect the force that is driving the narrative. Like any resurrected habit, at first, you have to fake it until you make it, and for a short bit I forced myself to fill in every possible moment of down time with a book. I made a concerted effort to reduce screen time and stopped binge watching serial TV, because I felt that I was losing my imagination, the images and words that clutter social media were adding nothing of value to my life. Reading voraciously is like any exercise, if the mind is out of shape it takes some patience before the words start to flow naturally. Of course, good writing helps, and once my reading chops are warmed up by one good book, I begin to search around for the next fix as quickly as possible to keep the lubricated gears in motion. It feels thrilling, I begin to notice more connections, catch phrases and my old habit of eavesdropping on conversations is tuned up searching for stories.
Since March I’ve been immersed in two huge epic serial novels by European writers that have both been touted as literary giants, if it sounds intimidating to ponder the idea to read a 3500 page, 6 volume fictional memoir believe me, it is at first. Now my hours of commuting have been filled the close and strangely compelling writing of the mundane by Karl Ove Knausgaard and Elena Ferrante’s fiery world of womanhood. I’m going to start peeling away at Ferrante first and step into the land of Naples, which is one long tale of feminity and friendship, shame and courage. But I will be back to delve into the Nordic land of the introverted, chain-smoking, coffee guzzling world of Knausgaard at a later date–because I’m obsessed with him and his writing as well. Plus, I plan to follow his footsteps when he comes for a visit in May. Unfortunately, Ferrante in her pseudonymous, almost non-existence doesn’t allow for fans to follow her around.
Last night, I finished “A Story with No Name” or Book 2 of the Neopolitan Novels by Elena Ferrante. I rushed through the last 40 pages and before it was too late and I sadly realized had only two pages left. I was a tiny bit panicked and mostly sad because I wanted the story to slow down since I didn’t have Book 3 handy and I felt a manic moment of abandonment as I closed the book. I’ve become emotionally attached to the friendship and twisting and turning tales of Lenu and Lila, and I felt I couldn’t stop following them through their childhoods in the rough streets of post-war Naples, to their sexual and intellectual awakenings and then onto motherhood. But more simply, I just want to know what happened to both women, I needed to learn how their friendship survived or crumbled, I wanted to know if they were happy or sad, if they have money, success, happiness and if in the end they were comfortable. Even as I was reading there were times when Lenu stopped herself from visiting Lila and I want to cry to her and reach into the book and say, “No! Go see your friend, she needs you, don’t be petty, you need her friendship too.” This is the power Ferrante (or whomever she is, although I’m certain a woman wrote these books) her energy, her words, the passion, there is no editing or slowing down, its long paragraphs of grief and energy, page after page pulls you into what is intuitively honest emotions. Nothing is trite. There is little that is superfluous and there is a lack of sentimental descriptions of setting and yet through the thoughts, emotions, ruminations of these two women I can still see Naples, Italy. There is an outline that is filled with the stories fo the neighborhood and I can see shabbily dressed children and basic buildings that are made of stone, where women work all day, men push carts of fruit, teenagers flirt, and the streets are filled with heat and sweat and tears. It’s not said so much or even described but as a reader I can feel the presence of the scenery. This is the magic of these stories. Yet through it all, I’m in the middle of their story, I never want to leave Lenu or Lila’s side, I fear the day that I will have no more pages to read and I will have to let them go. At the same time, I’m struck by the underlying message, the difficulty and brutality that face women as they navigate through a male-centric world, where choices are limited and risks are high. At first, one can think this story seems to have been told, haven’t we heard of the sad affairs of women that come from poverty? Why does this story of Lenu and Lila has me captivated, disgusted, emotionally wrought and concerned for their lives? As Rachel Donadio said in her review in The New York Review of Books:
To those of us fully entangled in the Ferrante universe, participants in this Greek chorus, who have come to care about these characters as much as we care about some people in our actual lives, to those of us who have come to scrutinize the world and ourselves all the more intensely for having read these unforgettable books, her latest report could not have arrived soon enough.
And here is what I feel, a fire has ignited within. It reminds to sit and write down what I have experienced, it doesn’t matter what elements of craft is used, or metaphor or figuring out the arch or symbolism or magical realism or any such literary device. I just need to sit and write my own story as a way to exorcise everything that is clogged within, because it’s truly creating a cancer, a block, a hateful feeling that can shadow days at a time. I feel that all I have left to face is a blank page, and to realize I have plenty of words and ideas to fills its daunting whiteness. I bookmarked the following page from Ferrante because it hit a nerve and one that also ties back to Knausgaard–this idea of writing as an art of destruction–and I know I have plenty of shame to destroy.
One morning, I bought a graph-paper notebook and began to write, in the third person, about what had happened to me that night on the beach near Barano. Then, still in third person, I wrote what happened to me on Ischia. Then I wrote a little about Naples and the neighborhood. Then I changed names and places and situtions. Then I imagined a dark force crouching in the life of the protagonist, an entity that had the capacity to weld the world around, with the colors of the flame of a blowtorch: a blue-violet dome where everything went well for her, shooting sparks, but that soon came apart, breaking up into meaningless gray fragments. I spent twenty days writing this story, a period during which I saw no one, I went out only to eat. Finally I reread some pages, I didn’t like them, and I forgot about it. But I found that I was calmer, as if the shame had passed from me to the notebook. I went back into the world, I quickly finished my thesis, I saw Pietro again.